A guest post by Nicole Jeffery.
I was recently asked by a friend what I filled my days with when my kids were small. Like many other mums, she’s convinced that she’s in the best position to raise her daughter ‘in the discipline and instruction of the Lord’. But being at home all day long with tiny kids can be a bit of a crunch in the gears when you’ve been used to pursuing a career elsewhere. And when all those new mums you’ve been getting to know start cheerily heading back to the office and you’re left all alone in the park with your baby, life can feel pretty directionless. Just a single day can feel long and empty and, if we’re honest, a curious mixture of dull and stressful.
My friend’s question got me thinking, so I started digging back into some of my old notes, books and photos. What follows is a fairly random selection of some of the things I did with our kids in those precious early years. As a family we certainly didn’t get everything right. And even the things that worked out well for us may not all suit you. Some may be impractical where you live or with your particular children. But hopefully they will encourage and inspire you to make the best use of these fleeting early years.
We did lots of cooking together. I let them decorate biscuits, put the toppings on pizzas, mix spices in little bowls. It was a pretty messy activity but they enjoyed it and learnt something as we went along. It also meant that I wasn’t always trying to cook while trying to entertain them; cooking together was the entertainment. Much less stressful all round!
We explored the world through food and books, and by making a giant wall-project. We got a world map, cut up photos from tourist brochures, made posters about anywhere in the world that we could, and covered a wall with all of it.
Most days we’d get outside – to a park, a nature reserve, even occasionally down to the sea. On cold days we’d take hot chocolate and snuggle on a park bench to keep warm. On hot days it would be bottles of water left in the freezer overnight. I’d always keep a bottle of bubble mixture on the buggy (I think a that’s called a stroller on the other side of the pond); bubbles can liven up the dullest day, and even a baby can be mesmerised by their movement.
We were also regulars in museums and galleries (London has so much to offer in that way). Until they were old enough to take part in organised activities (usually from around the age of 4), we’d just have a brief visit and look at one or two things. We’d take paper and coloured pencils and they’d sit on the floor and try and copy the pictures on the walls, or the patterns on the Mummy cases, or whatever we happened to be looking at. We’d go to the National Gallery and search for paintings that they’d found in sticker books, or in the delightful Katy books. We played hunt the king in the National Portrait Gallery, and hunt the lion in the Assyrian galleries in the British Museum. There was always something for the kids to latch on to and explore.
We read loads of simple Bible stories, listened to plenty of kids Bible music (we particularly liked songs by Jamie Soles), and worked our way through a multitude of Bible story sticker books. I also filled many a wet afternoon by teaching them from published Sunday School resources. I found that most can easily be adapted to use and home, and generally come complete with lots of activity ideas. There is a dizzying array to choose from; one possibility is Mustard Seeds which I’ve been using recently with our church Sunday School. From about age two they also played a Psalm-learning game; we’d read a psalm and they had to fill in the last word of each line (sometimes with actions and sounds effects). Simple I know, but it’s amazing how much they can still remember.
From a very early age we talked about numbers. We’d count things (e.g. apples in a bag when we emptied the shopping), and then I’d ask simple addition and subtraction questions (e.g. how many apples will I have left if I eat one?) This did really slow the jobs down, but I tried to think of it as part of their development rather than just doing a chore, and suddenly something rather dull turned into a worthwhile game.
I read them loads of stories and visited the library most weeks. Somewhere between the age of three and four I started teaching them to read. I just spent 10 minutes a day working through the lessons in The Ordinary Parents Guide to Teaching Reading. It’s very easy to use (every lesson is scripted) and the phonics approach helped a lot when we hit spelling a few years later.
We did copious amounts of craft activities – not being particularly artistic myself I tended to pick up ideas from library books – painting, play dough, colouring, junk modelling, cutting, sticking, and generally making a mess.
I tried to introduce them to practical science – though they would not have realised that is what we were doing. Together we found out the names of plants and birds (I found a great kids book on British birds which helped – I didn’t know most of them beforehand). We grew things (potatoes in a sack, tomatoes in a bag). We watched nature DVDs (the only TV they watched for years – we were a little draconian about things like that). One sunny afternoon we went to the park and explored the solar system. I also tried to answer their questions about the world around them; what happens when you boil a kettle, why you get condensation on a window in winter but not in summer, why weeds grow even though we didn’t plant them.
We also made lots of NOISE with plastic instruments, and usually had music on in the background. We used the time on long journeys to listen to stories, to introduce them to the world of classical music (the Beethoven’s Wig series was lots of fun), and teach them songs with useful lyrics (I wish I’d found Kathy Troxel’s Geography Songs when they were younger).
I could go on – the more I look back the more I remember all the other fun things we did (camping in the garden, building dens and eating lunch in them, hunting for bats at night, riding on the top deck of buses all over London, growing frogs in a bucket… I’d better stop reminiscing or this will never end). It was hard work, but fun.
So I’ve encouraged my friend to make the most of these years. To see each day, not as another dull and stressful labour, but as a precious and glorious gift from God. And before she knows it her daughter will have grown too big for most of these things and she’ll need to get down to some rather more serious study.
Nicole Jeffery is married to Steve, who serves as Minister at Emmanuel Evangelical Church in North London, England.